Sales of organic products in Britain will return to growth this year, ending a run of three consecutive annual declines, as the country's retailers offer more support, the chief executive of the Soil Association said on Friday.

I think we'll return to growth in 2012 because I think we're nearly there now...I'd love to see the retailers getting behind it this year and I think they are starting to and if they do we'll see the market return to growth, Helen Browning told Reuters on the sidelines of the association's annual conference.

Sales of organic products in the UK fell 3.7 percent in 2011 to 1.67 billion pounds, the largest organic certifier said on Friday.

The latest decline was driven by a 5 percent fall in sales by major food retailers as they cut back on the shelf space given to organic products and own-label organic ranges, the association reported.

I think it all depends on whether retailers do decide to invest in communications to their customers, whether they're prepared to be bolder about why people should be interested in organic and getting rid of the perception that organic is loads more expensive, she said.

Browning said demand for organic produce in Britain was patchy and added that while brands and small-scale independent businesses like farm shops and delicatessens had performed relatively well, supermarket own-label products had suffered from a lack of investment.


The decline in sales contrasts with the trend in many other European countries and Browning cited a lack of government support as one factor in the weak UK performance.

In most other European countries the governments really support organic, not necessarily just through money but through what they say - organic is very normal, they put it into their public procurement targets, they talk about it very positively, Browning said.

Here we haven't got a government that is saying that kind of thing and I think that makes a big difference because people feel it's not for them - I think we've put organic food on a bit of pedestal and we've said it's something special, it's nice but it's over there in that corner.

Austria, the Netherlands and Belgium all saw growth of more than 10 percent in their organic markets last year. Browning said Spain and Italy also had thriving organic markets, while France was moving fast.

Sales of organic textiles climbed 2 percent last year and Browning said she was optimistic about organic clothing's prospects thanks to the development of good fibres and attractive designs.

I don't want to wear a hemp sack but now that people have stopped making hemp sacks and started making really classy clothing that feels great, I think that textiles have got a great future, she said.

At one time all you could buy was a sort of Hessian T-shirt...I wouldn't even wear it to bed! But it's not like that now. It's more sexy, it's more fun.

Organic health and beauty sales also experienced strong growth in 2011, jumping 8.7 percent.

I think as people start to get worried about what they're putting into their bodies, they're a bit worried about what they're putting onto their skin, she said.

But she said it was important to remember that the organic label only provided assurance and that brands needed to build good products that people wanted to use on top of that.

If a face cream that's organic is gunky, I'm not going to put it on my face!

(Editing by James Jukwey)